Transnational Terrorist Organizations: Mexican Cartels Operating in Every U.S. State

Mexican Army soldiers stand guard behind AK 47 and M-16 rifles, part of an arsenal seized to alleged members of drug cartels in the community of Paso de Ovejas in Veracruz, Mexico on March 6, 2012. LUCAS CASTRO/AFP/GETTY IMAGES

“Mexican drug cartels continue to kill Americans at a rate higher than any terrorist group in history,” said Senator Tom Cotton in response to the fact that illicit drugs smuggled by Mexican cartels into the US killed more than 107,000 Americans last year.

The two largest cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación (CJNG), have become multibillion-dollar Transnational Organized Crime (TOC) groups. The Sinaloa Cartel, in particular, is operating in every US state and 47 countries around the world. Mexican cartels now operate on six continents and have completely dominated the cocaine and synthetic drug markets in Europe.

Republican lawmakers are pushing to have the cartels designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), but there has been significant pushback because such a designation would complicate US relations with Mexico. Once designated, any person or entity aiding the cartels would be in violation of US law and subject to sanctions and arrest.

The U.S. reserves the right to arrest individuals supporting terrorism in foreign countries. The USA PATRIOT Act, enacted after 9/11, provides broad powers to U.S. law enforcement to combat terrorism, including the ability to target financial networks supporting terrorist organizations. Additionally, executive orders, such as Executive Order 13224, enable the U.S. to block the assets of individuals and entities involved in terrorism and to prohibit transactions with them.

Corruption in Mexico is significantly facilitating the drug crisis in the US and supporting rising violence on both sides of the border. Mexican authorities, institutions, and individuals who are found to be on cartel payrolls would be targets for US authorities.

Transparency International ranked Mexico 126th out of 180 countries in terms of corruption. Everyone from politicians and judges to the army and police are accepting money from the cartels, making them fair game for Treasury Department sanctions and possibly arrest and extradition to the United States.

In addition to wanting to designate cartels as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO), Tom Cotton and other Republicans have introduced legislation to task the Department of Defense with countering the cartels.

Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has vehemently opposed such action, calling it a violation of Mexican sovereignty. His response to the cartels, dubbed “Hugs not bullets,” involves offering scholarships and social programs to the poor. However, these measures have done nothing to reduce the killings and disappearances.

Congressman Morgan Luttrell (R-TX), a special forces veteran, said, “Our border is being exploited by cartels, as they run one of the most extensive human and drug trafficking operations in the world, leaving no corner of our country untouched by the danger of cartel activity.”

The entire nation is being plagued by these groups, but border states like Texas are being hit hardest. And the situation is only getting worse.

“My expert opinion is that we’re going to see an increase in cartel violence within the United States in all of its forms,” said Charles Marino, a former advisor to the Department of Homeland Security and the CEO of Sentinel Security Solutions. Increasing cartel activity and drug deaths in the US underscore the need to stop the flow of drugs and transnational criminals into the country.

While the threat from cartels is growing, data shows that ICE is deporting fewer suspected gang members than in years past. In 2021, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas sent a memo to ICE urging them to focus on deporting individuals with serious criminal histories, stating that merely being in the country illegally should not be grounds for enforcement action against them.

El Salvador has managed to bring its criminal gangs to heel by suspending legal due process and arresting individuals with gang tattoos. These criminals are incarcerated in a specially designed super-max prison, where they will remain for the rest of their lives. According to President Bukele, the logic is that these are repeat offenders and career criminals incapable of rehabilitation. The only way to keep the public safe from them is to keep them locked away.

With cartels operating in all fifty states, designating them as Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) seems appropriate. This designation would put immediate pressure on the Mexican government to support US action against the cartels in Mexico. At the same time, the border must be secured, and drug traffickers and distributors in the United States must be jailed.

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Dr. Antonio Graceffo, PhD, China MBA, is an economist and national security analyst with a focus on China and Russia. He is a graduate of American Military University.

You can email Antonio Graceffo here, and read more of Antonio Graceffo's articles here.


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